The icon of the Mother of God with three hands that we celebrate tomorrow bears a great significance not just for us Serbs but for the Orthodox world in general. The icon itself is located at Hilandar Monastery at the Holy Mountain in Greece but copies of this icon exist everywhere including in our Church here at St. Nicholas.
The icon was given to St. Sava of Serbia together with many other valuable icons from the Holy Land when he visited those areas and was eventually brought to Serbia where it was preserved for a while. However, after some internal turmoil in Serbia the icon was sent to the Holy Mountain on a donkey. The donkey traveled all the way to Greece, to the Holy Mountain, and when it come in front of Hilandar monastery it fell down dead and the monks took the icon. We find out about this from the records of the monastery.
Upon taking the icon, the monks placed it in the Church. The icon was left there while the monks were discussing the election of the new abbot. However, when they went to Church the next day, they noticed that the icon of the Mother of God with three hands was sitting at the throne of the abbot thereby showing to the monks that she wants to be the abbess of their monastery. Since then, till this very day she is. The monks bow down to the icon and ask blessings from her when they go about their work. If we look at this icon, we will notice that it is very decorated but also that it has a third silver hand. Why the third hand?
The icon was originally painted by St. Luke the apostle, without the third hand. It eventually came to be in the possession of St. John of Damascus who was a great fighter for icon worship. Muslims cut off St. John’s hand so that he could not paint icons nor write in the defense of icon worship. He took his hand that was cut off and he prayed in front of this icon of the mother of God and the next morning he woke up healed with his hand in its place. In order to thank the Mother of God he made the third hand out of silver and placed it on the icon. Since then, the icon has three hands. St. John of Damascus took the linen in which the hand was wrapped and placed it around his head. Till his death, he wore it. You can notice a “strange hat” on his icon below.
During the Russian-Japanese war the Russians asked the brotherhood of Hilandar to give them the icon of the Mother of God with three hands so that they can achieve victory over the non-Christian enemy. They promised that when the war was over they would return the icon. The brotherhood of Hilandar made a copy of the icon because they feared the Russians will never return the original one. They gave it to the Russians and they did end up being victorious! They did respect their vow and after the war was over they brought the icon to the monastery. Now Hilandar has two icons of the mother of God with three hands. The original one and its copy.
God Bless St John of Damascus as we pray to our Mother of God. May she continue to intercede for us. I don’t know a lot but, this is one of my favorite Icons. I can only pray to be a better Christian.